Lolita (1962) – Review by Dwight Macdonald

by Dwight Macdonald

Lolita is a good movie which might have been much better. For the title role, Stanley Kubrick discovered a teen-age television actress named Sue Lyon whose moods, accent, facial expressions, and body movements seem to me remarkably authentic—quite different from the cliches we usually get in such roles. The direction has Kubrick’s virtues: a sense of form (opening and closing with the murder of Quilty, for instance, which is as comically horrible as it is in the book) and of tempo (so little waste motion that it seems shorter than its running time, most unusual in our films) and of what is a picture (how refreshing to have a sharp eye behind the camera and how lucky that Kubrick began as a still photographer). The script, credited to the author of the novel though I gather the director had some good ideas too, is tight and workmanlike. And there is Peter Sellers, as Quilty, who rips off two freestyle imper­sonations which are the best things he’s done since I’m All Right, Jack.

Still, Lolita is a disappointment because we have a right to expect more from Kubrick. His film, while far above the Hollywood level, is still a conventional effort. What was needed was something much wilder and more original, something in the line of Vigo or Godard, which would find a cinematic equivalent for the exuberant, dare­devil prose of the novel. I think there are two reasons for this failure to translate the spirit, as well as the literal story, of Mr. Nabokov’s book into movie terms. One is the casting of James Mason as Humbert. The part demanded a protean, intellectual, obsessed personality—Olivier might have carried it off—and Mason was just not the type. He is what is called an “adequate” actor, which usually means “inadequate”—compare his and Ralph Richardson’s performances as the prosecutor in those two Oscar Wilde films; it was the craftsman vs. the artist—and his specialty has always been the stiff upper lip, whereas Humbert Humbert has a very loose upper lip; he is a volatile Central European, shameless and cynical, who would have thought his film shadow a hopeless square. Mason is indeed remarkably like Humbert’s description of himself—“the writer’s good looks—pseudo-Celtic, attractively sim­ian, boyishly manly”—which is perhaps why Kubrick chose him; but he conveys no inner spirit to vivify this physique, and it is Humbert’s garrulous self-exposure that makes the book interesting. Mason was conceivable as General Rommel and Captain Nemo, but these gentlemen were memorable for what they did rather than for what they thought or felt. Another casting mistake was Shelley Winters as Lolita’s mother; Charlotte Haze was a genteel ladies’- club type; Miss Winters plays her so fortissimo that she becomes a brawling Bronx fishwife whom one cannot imagine having poor Charlotte’s cultural pretensions—or getting Humbert to marry her, despite the nymphetic bait.

But the chief reason for the failure to recapture the quality of the novel is that Kubrick was evidently scared stiff of the Legion of Decency and such self-appointed guardians of our morals. Even the tiniest ads find space for the legends: “Approved by The Pro­duction Code Administration” and “Not for Persons under 18 Years of Age.” These bows to Mrs. Grundy turn out to reflect accurately the nature of the film. The erotic and perverse flavor of the novel has been almost entirely expunged—I wonder why Mr. Nabokov agreed to this bowdlerization. This has been done partly by casting Miss Lyon, who was fourteen but looked seventeen, as the twelve-year-old Lolita—good as she is, her advanced age tones down Humbert’s obsession from perversity into mere infatuation— but chiefly by omitting or blurring all the erotic parts of the book, one of whose charms was that it was romantically enthusiastic about physical desire as against the usual clinical or repellent treatment in current novels. Thus the first sexual encounter, at the Enchanted Hunters Motel, is one of the great passages in the book; libidinous feeling (and frustration) was lyrically, wittily described and in detail; when finally the encounter takes place on just the opposite terms Humbert imagined (“it was she who seduced me”), it is high comedy. But the movie gives only the most fugitive, embarrassed version of the scene. The book-Humbert had plied his prey with what he thought were sleeping pills but were in fact placebos, and she resists him not from chastity but “with the neutral plaintive murmur of a child demanding its natural rest.” The movie- Humbert is too decent to resort to sleeping pills and, after a half hearted attempt to share Lolita’s bed (the other Humbert just climbed in) he retreats to a folding couch, after protracted strug­gles to open it, which divert the audience with some good, clean, low comedy. Kubrick is too artful a director not to have realized this change of key was destructive to the mood of the scene—but of course this was just what he wanted. In the book Humbert is frus­trated by Lolita; here he is frustrated by a sexless mechanism—a clear gain censorwise. The reverse seduction, the turning point of the book, is here attenuated to Lolita’s whispering something in Humbert’s ear; he looks surprised; cut.

I see no reason for going so far in bowdlerization. The book is not pornographic and—unlike Henry Miller’s the Tropic of Cancer —was not challenged in the courts. Granted a book can “get away with” more than a movie, still I think this one could have come much closer to the’ erotic atmosphere of the book. The Legion of Decency would have tried to organize a boycott and the Production Code Administration’s seal of approval would have been withheld, but movies have been commercially shown in this country which defied both these establishments. One can understand why Kubrick, as a businessman, didn’t want to offend the bluenoses. But he is also an artist, and he missed a chance to challenge the worst aspect of our movie censorship: its disapproval of the erotic and its tolerance of the sadistic. Thus he dared to do Quilty’s murder right out of the book, but he gives us no comparable love scene. In fact, sometimes one thinks that the only way to get real sex past the censors is to combine it with sadism; rape seems less objectionable to them than seduction, perhaps because it is less enjoyable.

—September 1962

Source: Dwight Macdonald, Dwight Macdonald on movies


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